Being an admin at a non-profit - what's it like?
September 8, 2010 12:55 PM   Subscribe

I'm an executive assistant and office manager considering a move to the non-profit sector. What can you tell me about the hours, atmosphere, and work style of non-profit offices?

Most of my experience has been in mid-sized alternative investment firms in Manhattan. (I've also worked a couple jobs at small start-ups, but that was some time ago.) I'm used to 40 hour work weeks, great benefits, high stress level and very fast-paced days.

My current job search looks to be leading to an attractive offer for an office manager position at a Manhattan finance firm. That's great. But I've been interested in switching to non-profit work for some time, and I finally seem to be gaining traction in that sector in that I'm getting some interest from some large, well-funded foundations and institutes.

So please help me make a more informed decision, hive-mind. Tell me about your non-profit workplace. Do you always work more than 40 hours? How are the benefits? What's the atmosphere like?
posted by minervous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I worked for five years at a non-profit music school. I never worked more than 9-5 with an hour's break for lunch (and 9-4 during the summer!). It was delightful. The benefits were good, with a matching 403(b) program. Got two weeks vacation, plus the school holidays.

Those were the most enjoyable of all of my working days, and I often wish I could go back in time to enjoy them again.

Caveat: I made less than one tenth of my current salary--the easy livin' definitely had its tradeoffs.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:05 PM on September 8, 2010

I work in a non-profit. In the non-profit sector there are jobs in office settings, residential settings, and outreach style programming that runs evenings and weekends. Depending on the funding sources, pay can be pretty good, or it can be not so great. Same with benefits. The stress can be high and the days can be busy. Co-workers are, you know, people, so some are terrific and some are pains in the butt. But the work can be incredibly rewarding. Incredibly rewarding. The people we provide services for are endlessly interesting. And the work we do matters. I love it, even on the days I hate it.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 1:09 PM on September 8, 2010

Best answer: Some are wonderful and some are utterly poisonous. Look at the sickness and long-term 'gardening leave' records, check them out on charity navigator and research them thoroughly beforehand, because a non-profit can burn you out like nothing on earth.

A good non-profit makes use of volunteers where possible, has a good relationship with other non-profits to minimise duplicate work and doesn't mind transparency in reporting.

In my experience also look for turnover in board members and trustees. And look to the local group and not the national one (planned parenthood recently dropped it's SF franchise because of stuff)

In other words, it's impossible to tell these days but the more involved you are in the local voluntary sector scene the more useful things you'll find out. If you have time I'd recommend joining a few umbrella groups first and getting the hang of it - local politics are a big, huge factor in how they're managed.

Benefits are usually in benefits, ie leave, maternity allowance, family friendly policies and not in a good salary until you're running the thing. Stress can be huge but again it depends on the local culture and what it is you're actually doing. Take all advantage of local non-profit support groups that you can (in the UK we have CVSs and managerial support groups often).
posted by shinybaum at 1:14 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Right now I make about 1/2-2/3 of my current market value working at a non-profit. In exchange, I work 8-4 with an hour break, and have half day Fridays during the summer, and I go home and don't stress out about my job. I get 2 weeks vacation, and some personal days. If I were to insure anyone but myself, the benefits would be incredibly expensive. A lot of non-profits have been hit really hard in the last few years, and most that I know haven't given out cost of living raises in the last year or two. I care about the mission of the organization I work for, and that keeps me motivated, and makes me feel good at the end of the day.

My last job was for a different non-profit organization. I worked non-stop, averaging around 55 hours a week, even when you factored in my vacation and 3 weeks off for surgery. I was paid less there, and finally left because the stress was killing me.

Each organization is different, and unfortunately, it's hard to say what's it's like because the people and atmosphere determine so much of what the job will be like.
posted by Zophi at 1:15 PM on September 8, 2010

Depends on what kind of non-profit you work for, and what their funding's like. My experience with a couple of newish shaky-funding non-profits: long hours, little benefits, low salary, chaotic work environment, never knowing if I was going to get paid from month-to-month. The trade-off for me was getting to do something I loved, and was passionate about.

My experience with a better-funded non-profit still included long, irregular hours and a chaotic work environment, but the pay and benefits were better. I've worked in political and socially-minded non-profits.

I've never known someone to have Admiral Haddock's experience with non-profits, but that doesn't mean places like that don't exist. My experience is that you don't get into non-profit work to get rich or comfortable -- you get into it because you love what they're doing. I would be surprised if you found a non-profit that didn't require a lot of elbow grease and some irregular hours. They can often be very different from the corporate world.

ThatCanadianGirl nailed it, though: "And the work we do matters. I love it, even on the days I hate it."
posted by Laura Macbeth at 1:22 PM on September 8, 2010

nthing Shinybaum, and just to add: if you can, find out where their funding is coming from. If they have many sources, the NGO isn't likely to go down the toilet financially any time soon. If they have only a few sources, your job may not be as secure.
posted by LN at 1:23 PM on September 8, 2010

I've worked in non-profit offices for 10 years, and been an AA, and managed other administrative staff. Although the atmosphere can vary greatly from office to office and manager to manager, overall I've found non-profits to be great environments. I have seldom worked more that 40 hours, and when I did, it was usually around a specific event. Currently, I've got a 35 hour work week as a middle manager. I find that stress levels tend to be cyclical, depending on the department you work in. For me, that's generally been calendar year end and/or fiscal year end, but even then, I'm seldom staying late. Other times can be really slow (summers).

Benefits in the national offices I work in have been minimally very good, and at best, awesome. Benefits I currently have, or know of at other places: fully paid medical and dental, 4 weeks of vacation to start, free lunch in cafeterias, early office closures on Friday during summer, casual dress codes, free language lessons or other classes, good 401k.

Salary-wise, they can be all over the map. Some use great benefits as a way to pay less, while others think it's important to be competitive with the private sector.

And there's the satisfaction of working for causes that you believe in.
posted by kimdog at 1:32 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, you aren't joining the organisation, you're joining the non-profit sector. Bear that in mind and read the magazines/websites/related legal issues. Be current on who does what and how even if you're joining on the lowest rung. Be current on what's going on with funding and how your board is dealing with it. Maintain relationships with other groups even if your group is painfully possessive of the local homeless/food insecure/green initiatives.

One thing I've learned is that jumping ship in the incestuous world of NGO/VS organisations is much easier if you know what's what and who is who. Also one thing all the groups I've worked at have been brilliant at is training - do it even if you don't need it, and if they don't do it you're in shallow waters already.
posted by shinybaum at 1:34 PM on September 8, 2010

Best answer: I went from finance to non-profit last year. I took a fairly decent pay cut which was a combination of lower pay and additional expenses that were previously covered in the finance world (daily lunch, benefits, transportation). It's sort of balanced out with generous vacation/sick time. I no longer work crazy hours, I no longer grit my teeth for those that treat me like hired help (and ironically most could not survive without me), and instead of helping rich people get richer with few thanks, I'm now helping people who are making a direct improvement on people's lives. In short, I feel better about myself.

I don't want to completely knock finance, I enjoyed the challenge and it paid the bills very nicely when I most needed and I've met some of the best and brightest folks out there. At this point in my life though, my quality of life is more important than my salary (this wasn't true 10yrs ago).

Obviously, all office cultures are different and not all non-profits are equal.
posted by getmetoSF at 2:11 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've worked at a number of NPOs in admin positions. I think the large well funded foundations and institutes would probably be closest to what you've experienced in the for profit sector. I'd imagine that they'd be more stable, have more formal dress codes and more rigid job responsibilities. You want to end up somewhere where they value admin workers as part of the team and don't just see them as a necessary evil to getting the "real work" done.

I've generally had ok to good pay, great benefits and slightly longer hours. For example I haven't had to pay at all for health insurance in the last 2 jobs and some places will also cover dependents. I've had up to 4 weeks vacation time (banking up to 6) + the possibility of a sabbatical after 5 years. Currently I work 9-5:30 + a few late hours here and there.

The work environments can differ a lot. If you can check up on staff turnover it can give you an indication about how happy people are there. Yes the work matters and is important but be wary of places where that is taken to mean that you should work tremendously long hours without extra compensation. Similarly in some places people are so committed that any office lunch is just shop talk.
posted by oneear at 2:38 PM on September 8, 2010

Best answer: I've never known someone to have Admiral Haddock's experience with non-profits, but that doesn't mean places like that don't exist.

They do; it pretty much matches my experience. 35 hour week, 27 days leave p.a, decent wage and benefits*.

I am in the UK, though, so the vacation allowance, at least, is unexceptional. I don't know how much my experience is transferable across the pond in other regards - possibly very little.

With that caveat in mind, I might characterise my non profit experience like this:

Hours: variable and flexible. A lot of people around me do tend to work long hours often. Some people work mostly dead on their regular contractual stint. It's not uncommon to see people working short hours. It is flexible sometimes to the point of casual, and rooted in "has the necessary work been done / will it get done" rather than clockwatching and punching in and out. So, if no more work can reasonably be done (e.g. a supplier failing to deliver), or there is a need for being at home to let the electrician in or taking little Jonny to the dentist, most managers are lax about letting people come in late / skip off early.

On the other hand if there's a crunch on, the expectation is that you'll stay as late as necessary as often as necessary and sort it out, without any question of overtime pay. And although there's the prospect of claiming back food/travel expenses and time off in lieu for out-of-normal-hours meetings/conferences/events and such, it seems pretty common not to bother if it's minor.

Similarly they seem open to longer term 'alternative' working arrangements: working at home, working 11-7, 9-day fortnights, etc.

Similar philosophy extends to general atmosphere and culture. e.g. personal internet use in the office, basically non-existent dress code, having an occasional beer at lunchtime, there's a lot of stuff which I imagine may raise eyebrows at a strict corporate type of place, but nobody is bothered so long as the results are in place.

If this all sounds a bit idyllic, I might dare suggest that some non-profits can get a little unclear on exactly what "the results in place" means. Without that ruthless invisible hand, it's possible for some individuals, or departments, or in the worst case, entire organisations, to, ahem, not exactly deliver much in the way of results.

The worst case is obviously people actively, cynically abusing the state of affairs. The best case is less overtly horrible, but you may still find it frustrating, especially given your work background (not that I have personal experience in the Manhattan investment world, but I can guess it's not so different to what I hear from friends in the City). i.e.: lots of well-meant 'busy work' type activity, such as "inclusive" decision-making bureaucracies, with lots of meetings and initiatives and working groups and drafts but, lacking any core goal, or penalties for failure, not much measurable output, or output which is socially positive, but to some inefficient and/or accidental extent.

I think that, just like the corporate sector, individual non-profit workplaces' culture would vary widely, partly due to factors such as its age, the size and geographic spread of workforce, whether its growth has been organised/chaotic, and so on. Hopefully you can at least partly gauge in advance how clear an org's aims are, and what sort of rigorous efficiency is applied in terms of 'M&E' or 'ROI' in how they work towards those aims, from their website / annual reports, and keep an eye out for any sense of it during the interview.

* not "decent" in the "fully competitive to any other sector" sense, obviously, but not shoddy either.
posted by Slyfen at 2:59 PM on September 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

I was an admin at a non-profit several years ago. The pay was all right, the benefits were great, two weeks paid vacation, sick leave, and the week between Christmas and New Year off. Eight hour day, paid lunch. Awesome Christmas parties, office lunches, birthday cake from posh bakeries.

In exchange I did the job of three people. Instead of just being an admin assistant, I was also the publications editor and the webmaster. It was rarely boring. Honestly, I sort of regret leaving, especially given the current state of the public sector where I now work (thanks Arnold!).
posted by elsietheeel at 3:00 PM on September 8, 2010

It depends. A lot. And the expectations regarding hours/performance may be vastly different from one department to another.

The CEO/Exec Director often exerts a mesmerizing amount of control over the culture, and his or her influence may be utilized in capricious ways. Technically, the Exec Dir/CEO "works for" the Board of Directors, which can affect the culture in some perplexing ways, usually coming down to unspoken but understood areas of deference, prestige, and control.

The pay will not be as good, the "great benefits" which are allegedly the payoff for the lower salary may seem like a rather naively padded-out bill of sale to someone more familiar with corporate culture. (OMG, no way, EIGHT holidays?! And TWO personal days?! No shit! Wait, wait, after five years I can have three weeks of vacation rather than two?) It is commonplace to consider the value of the mission of the organization to be an inherent benefit.

I know, that sounds really cynical and negative. On the other hand, job descriptions can be more malleable, and if you have a particular area at which you excel, it is likely that you will be able to find a way to develop your job description into that area. If you want to stretch into new territory to get yourself new experience, you're more likely to be able to find a way to do that, too.

The lack of a profit margin/bottom line means that budgets can be a lot more flexible, especially if a case can be made for a mission-driven payoff. This can be maddening, but it also can be liberating in terms of prioritization.

I could kinda go on forever, comparing and contrasting.
posted by desuetude at 3:48 PM on September 8, 2010

Best answer: Three Words of Advice: Investigate, Investigate, Investigate.

I am now working for a non-profit and wish I had explored Charity Navigator and had considered their high-turnover rate more seriously. I am nearly burnt out because I didn't do my research.

In my case, I also desperately needed a job, as I had student loans and a few other expenses from moving to a new city (on the plus side, I'm here with someone who I love very much and she is very supportive, so I'm not ready to jump off a cliff just yet).

If you aren't pressed to find a job, or in my previous situation, i'd advise against the non-profit if they have high staff turnover or say, 'It's only a few extra weekend / daily hours.' They're lying!

Good luck, and I hope that whatever decision you make works out!
posted by glaucon at 4:59 PM on September 8, 2010

I've been working at a major national nonprofit for almost five years. My workplace is as corporate as it comes. I wear suits regularly. If I was the type to dry clean, my bills would be insane.

It is not a meritocracy. If your manager likes you, you might get promoted. Human resources is pretty useless (though they've gotten better). For an institution that has an outstanding group of employees, it does very very little to develop their talent.

And I do have outstanding colleagues. Really top of their game. You name the Ivy League or top-ranked university in our fields, I'll name several colleagues who graduated from there. They really care about their work. It's not just a job.

There are also lots of young people. At our most social, we go out for drinks once or twice a week. However, because of the recession and because so many people want to work here, you more or less need a master's degree to get in the door. Administrative assistants with MA's are not unusual.

The highlight of my tenure has been helping to pass a major piece of federal legislation. The low point would be the multiple times when other colleagues have gotten credit for my work. But I imagine that happens at other workplaces.
posted by kat518 at 6:55 PM on September 8, 2010

Regarding high-turnover and long hours, I'm not disagreeing that this is something to investigate, but also offering some alternate explanations with which to temper your judgment of any raw numbers:

A stint at a non-profit can be a good transitional career-boost for someone trying to shift up a significant level. Frequently, these people will stay a year or two and then bounce right out to jump up another level into a more-desired field. A nice title with some benefit-of-the-doubt is sometimes granted more generously to fresh blood (especially given that the pay is not necessarily as competitive.)

Meanwhile, the longer-term employees (personal bitterness alert) who have already been promoted a couple of times can't secure titles commensurate with their increased levels of responsibility. So, we either get fed up and split, or work longer hours to prove ourselves. We start to feel martyred. The hours get even longer, but not more effective. We should have gotten out years ago.

/just got out

I don't regret the time I put in to my former employer, or even the escalating responsibility that I accepted, I just wish that I'd thought through goals and an exit strategy more thoroughly and earlier.
posted by desuetude at 7:50 PM on September 8, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you, all, for such thoughtful and insightful answers. I really appreciate it.
posted by minervous at 9:56 AM on September 10, 2010

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